The 52 Places Traveler: Place 12 of 52: In Denver, a Mile High but Down to Earth

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Gathering Spot

The $54 million renovation of Union Station, a 1914-vintage train depot, has turned it into something like New York’s Ace Hotel — a hip gathering spot — only with transportation schedules. The station’s lobby is filled with library-like long tables and comfy leather chairs where a diverse cross-section of the city types away on their laptops. I loved the farm-to-table sandwiches at light-filled Mercantile Dining Provision so much I went twice.

The same company behind Union Square, Sage Hospitality, also runs Denver’s newest hip hotel, The Maven, where I stayed (for $169 to $209, plus tax and a $20 a night amenities fee) next to Coors Fields on a historic site called the Dairy Block that one housed a dairy. The lobby has a similar library-like feel, plus an indoor Airstream trailer that sells coffee and breakfast burritos.

Hotel or Museum?

You know a hotel is doing something right when museum directors ask if you’ve visited it. The Art, a Hotel, where I stayed one night for $235 has a mesmerizing Leo Villareal light-design installation at its entrance, one of Deborah Butterfield’s life-size metal horses that looks like it was woven with twigs, and a video of dogs going up and down the elevator with you. It’s in walking distance of all major art institutions.

Museum or Living Room?

Tired of seeing art displayed in plain white rooms? Make a special trip to the vastly expanded and newly reopened Kirkland Museum of Fine Decorative Art. Named after the late abstract painter and Denver resident Vance Kirkland, it features the work of some 1,500 artists and designers, laid out in a unique salon style. Diamond-shaped chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright and an undulating cardboard ottoman from Frank Gehry might be next to a painting from an obscure Colorado surrealist. All the paintings are from Colorado artists, and the collection of midcentury modern decorative pottery is particularly charming. Organizing principals are loosely chronological, and never boring.

A Singular Collection

The will of the pioneering Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) stipulated that his collection be awarded to an American city that presented the best plan for a museum solely dedicated to showing it in its entirety. Denver won, and the result is the Clyfford Still Museum, an impressive concrete structure with huge walls for displaying the artist’s immense canvases, and textured ceilings that let in daylight in fractured patterns.

On the Street and On Tap

The best way to see Denver’s booming art scene is to simply walk around RiNo, where many businesses commission murals to draw in customers, and an art event literally puts a fresh coat of paint on the neighborhood each year — resulting in something amazing to see on nearly every public wall. I toured with Alex Roth, a Colorado native who works for the luxury travel club, Inspirato, and offered to be my guide. He also introduced me to the art of wandering into Denver’s many microbreweries, such as Our Mutual Friend, which itself had a mural storefront of neon-colored camouflage.

It’s important to note that RiNo is as much a story of gentrification as it is of growth. In 2005, artists who’d moved into the area’s abandoned industrial buildings came up with the name as a way to sell more art. Commercial and residential real estate followed, and have pushed into the historically black parts of town — particularly the Five Points neighborhood — to significant controversy.